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Ali Smith: Like

This was Ali Smith’s first novel and a very accomplished first novel it is. It tells two related stories. We start with Amy Shone (rhymes with cone, not con) and her seven year old daughter, Kate. They have recently arrived in an unnamed Scottish resort. They are both English, however. Amy has managed to find a job looking after a caravan site run by Angus. The advantage of the job is that it comes with free housing, namely a caravan. It seems that, prior to this, they have been travelling around. Amy claims that she does not know who Kate’s father is. Kate misses not only having a father but also grandparents, as the other children at her school have.

We gradually learn a bit about the two of them, with both acting as alternate narrators. It seems that Amy cannot read and relies on Kate to read for her. Indeed, she seems to despise books and Kate has to smuggle them into the caravan. We gradually learn that Amy is neither illiterate nor blind but has some psychological problem which prevents her from reading. We also learn that, at least twice, she has tried to abandon Kate.

Kate attends the local school and tries to have a normal life. She makes friends, though her friends’ mothers are a bit concerned about a child who has no apparent father and who lives in caravan rather than a house. Amy, however, remains primarily a solitary person, except, of course, with Kate and also with Angus, who seems to be attracted to her.

Gradually, it seems that Amy is trying to re-establish her life from whatever trauma led her to her current situation. For example, she gradually starts recovering words, being able to read words in the newspaper and knowing what they mean and their implications.

One day, out of the blue, she pulls Kate out of school, claiming that she has mumps, borrows some money from Angus and sets off on a long train journey to England. There she goes to a house, which turns out to be parents’ house. She has not seen them for many years and they are unaware of the birth of their granddaughter. We learn that her mother is a celebrity chef and her father a celebrated academic.

Amy seeks to borrow money from her parents for a holiday abroad and to use her father’s influence with a friend in the Passport Office to get a passport for Kate, whose birth was never registered. We next meet mother and daughter in Pompeii. Amy has now recovered the ability to read and remembers more. In particular, it seems she has studied the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii and knows a lot about it, which she explains to Kate.

However, when she returns, Angus has decided to fire her. This seems, at least in part, because she does not want to sleep with him. However, she finds another job and another house. One day she receives a call from a journalist, who is asking Amy about someone called Aisling McCarthy. Aisling was a successful actress but seems to have disappeared off the radar. The journalist is doing a series on What Happened To – she mentions some names and they are real people – and is looking for Aisling McCarthy whom Amy apparently knew. We learn that they did know another and, according to Amy, were friends.

The second part of the book tells Aisling McCarthy’s tale. Aisling is pronounced Ashling and, as a result, most people call her Ash. At the start of her story – also told in the present – she has gone back to her father’s house. Aisling’s mother died of cancer when Aisling was eight and she and her identical older twin brothers had been brought up by the father. As we had learned, Aisling is an actress but seems to be escaping from something. (So I’m home and I haven’t a clue where I am.). She looks back to the past. She grew up in a small Scottish town. From an early age, she realised that was a lesbian. She fell in love with an American girl at her school.

However, Amy and her parents come up to the town on holiday and it is Aisling who shows them around. She and Amy become close and, when Amy returns to England, they correspond. While out with Amy and her parents, they stop at a small café where Donna, a girl at Aisling’s school whom Aisling barely knows, is serving. After Amy’s departure, Donna and Aisling start an affair, which continues for a while, though Aisling is still thinking of Amy. The pair do have fights, including a fist fight but continue till one day, in the prefects’ room, another a girl, Shona, one of Aisling’s close (heterosexual) friends is highly critical of two tennis players and their lesbian relationship (presumably Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss). Aisling is embarrassed but more annoyed when Donna supports Shona.

Word seems to get out that Aisling defended the lesbian relationship and therefore may be lesbian herself. One of the teachers hears this and takes Aisling on holiday with her. However, on her return she receives a long letter from Amy which seems like a love letter and immediately heads off to Cambridge, where Amy is studying. We follow the complicated relationship between the two women, Aisling’s relationship with Simone, her feeling of inferiority with the other Cambridge students and, in particular, her erratic and nasty behaviour which messes up the lives of both Simone and Amy.

What makes this book, apart, of course, from the imaginative plot and the story of the two women whose lives seem to have been messed up because of love gone wrong, is Smith’s superb writing. A good writer, one who gets into her characters’ minds, who knows how to carry a story and who does not burden us with extraneous details while, at the same, giving us a picture of her characters and their world, can make even the simplest of plots worth reading, as she pulls the reader into her story. Smith does this very well and she does it particularly well, considering it is her first novel. We know that she is going to go on to become a a first-class novelist – described here by Sebastian Barry (scroll down to fifth comment) as Scotland’s Nobel laureate-in-waiting – and this work shows that her talent was apparent from the beginning.

Publishing history

First published 1997 by Virago